He listened as their voices faded into the rumble of the falls. He was thinking about the lynx. The way it had looked at him, acknowledging his existence, then passing out of his life like smoke. . . It was the first thing—the only thing—that had managed, if only for a moment, to displace from his mind the image of the child. He had carried that image with him for a year now, and it had been a weight so great that sometimes he could hardly stand.
Mary Lawson’s beloved novels, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, have delighted legions of readers around the world. The fictional, northern Ontario town of Struan, buried in the winter snows, is the vivid backdrop to her breathtaking new novel.
Roads End brings us a family unravelling in the aftermath of tragedy: Edward Cartwright, struggling to escape the legacy of a violent past; Emily, his wife, cloistered in her room with yet another new baby, increasingly unaware of events outside the bedroom door; Tom, their eldest son, twenty-five years old but home again, unable to come to terms with the death of a friend; and capable, formidable Megan, the sole daughter in a household of eight sons, who for years held the family together but has finally broken free and gone to England, to try to make a life of her own.
Roads End is Mary Lawson at her best. In this masterful, enthralling, tender novel, which ranges from the Ontario silver rush of the early 1900s to swinging London in the 1960s, she gently reveals the intricacies and anguish of family life, the push and pull of responsibility and individual desire, the way we can face tragedy, and in time, hope to start again.
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MARY LAWSON was born and brought up in a small farming community in Ontario. She is the author of two previous novels, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, both of them international bestsellers. She lives in England but returns to Canada frequently.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Struan, January 1966
Two weeks before Megan left home she began a clear-out of her room. She put her suitcase (the biggest she could find, purchased from Hudson’s Bay) on the bed and a large cardboard box (free of charge from Marshall’s Grocery) on the floor beside it and anything that wouldn’t fit into the one had to go into the other. She was ruthless about it; she intended to travel light. Out went any items of clothing she hadn’t worn for a year or more, any shoes ditto, any odd socks or underwear with holes in it that she had saved for days that didn’t matter, in full knowledge of the fact that none of her days mattered, or at least not in a way that required respectable underwear. Out went the debris left in the bottom of drawers: safety pins, bobby pins, fraying hair ribbons, a beaded bracelet with half the beads missing, the remains of a box made of birch bark and decorated with porcupine quills, ancient elastic bands looking so much like desiccated earthworms that she had to close her eyes when she picked them up and a quill pen fashioned from an eagle’s feather, made for her by Tom when he was at the eagle’s feather stage.
She threw out a bottle of perfume the twins had given her for Christmas one year, the name of which—Ambush—had made her father laugh out loud, an exceedingly rare occurrence, and followed it with a hideous blue plastic brush and comb set (a Christmas present from Corey), a pink velvet jewelry case containing a mock-diamond ring that had turned her finger green (a Christmas present from Peter), a black velvet Alice band (from her mother) and a fluffy collie dog she’d won in a prize draw at a fund-raising day at school when she was much too old for such things.
Out went a large part of her childhood, in fact. What’s over is over.
Into her suitcase, along with the decent underwear, went blouses, sweaters, skirts (summer and winter), jeans, two summer dresses that she still liked, her one decent pair of pajamas, her saddle shoes and her one and only pair of smart shoes (white, with little heels), bought for her high-school graduation and worn exactly once thereafter, six months ago, when Patrick took her out for dinner down in New Liskeard for a birthday treat. She’d be wearing her winter boots, which was just as well because they’d have taken up half the case.
Also into the suitcase went a miniature travel sewing kit (a twelfth birthday present from her mother that Megan had considered rather pointless at the time because she never went anywhere but that now, after nine years in the bottom of a drawer, might come in handy), a hot water bottle (she couldn’t sleep without one) and a photo of the whole family, or as much of it as had existed at the time, taken by a traveling magician who had come boiling up the long and dusty road to Struan one summer’s day in an ancient overheated Packard hearse. Megan had no idea where he had come from or where he went, but she remembered the evening he entertained the town. He’d put on a performance in the church hall and the entire population of Struan had attended, even her father, who never went to anything. She remembered the magician up on the stage, a tall thin figure, elegant in tails and top hat, producing streams of brightly colored scarves out of nowhere, causing them to flow through the air like birds. He’d whirled hoops around, passing them through each other in impossible ways, and danced with a cane to the tune of “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” played on an ancient gramophone borrowed from the school.
The next day the magician had set up a makeshift studio in one corner of the hall, pinning up as a backdrop a sheet with a Venetian canal painted on it, and took photographs of whoever wanted them, which was practically everyone, a great sprawling gaggle of farmers and miners and men from the lumber mill and teachers and shop owners and even a few loggers from the camp upriver, all in their Sunday best, all wanting a photo of themselves and their families, if any, something to record their existence, to anchor them to this place and this time: Struan, Northern Ontario, via Venice, circa (Megan studied the photo and decided she must have been about ten, which made it eleven years ago) 1954.
Again, Megan’s father had come along and, astonishingly, had submitted to having his photograph taken with his family, so there they all were: Father and Mother standing at the back (Father looking impatient and Mother looking anxious, Megan thought, as though she were wondering if she’d left something on the stove). Mother was holding Henry, who was a few months old at the time. In front of them, arranged by height (which at that stage was also by age), were Tom, Megan and the twins, Donald and Gary.
Henry, the baby, had been born with a hole in his heart and died six months after the photo was taken. Peter, Corey and Adam hadn’t been born yet. Before Adam made his appearance, Megan’s mother had a stillbirth and two miscarriages, so he was the youngest by eight years.
In addition to filching the family photo, Megan sorted through a shoebox full of other old photographs, mostly taken by Tom with a Box Brownie, and found one of Peter and Corey playing on the beach and another of Adam when he was a couple of months old. At the bottom of the box there was one of her and Tom up in a tree, and she took that too. She couldn’t recall ever climbing a tree and had no idea who had taken the photo (Tom was the only member of the family interested in photography), but she liked it, so she took it.
She felt no guilt about stealing the photos; no one else in the family ever looked at them and she was sure they wouldn’t be missed. She put them in an envelope and slid it under everything else so that it would lie flat on the bottom of the suitcase. Then she tried to close the case and found she couldn’t. She removed two sweaters, two skirts and the smart white shoes, leaned on the case, managed to close it and do up its shiny new latches and discovered she couldn’t even lift it off the bed. So out came everything and she had another cull and then, at last, it was done.
She stepped back and surveyed her room. Nothing left. No dolls to linger over even if she’d been the lingering type; with all those babies in the family the last thing she’d needed was a doll. Likewise no dollhouses or miniature tea sets; “playing house” had very little appeal if you spent your days doing the real thing. Nothing on the window sills or on the walls, nothing on her narrow wooden desk. A clean sweep; it was immensely satisfying. Adam would have the room, she decided. Then he would no longer wake Peter and Corey or vice versa. When she came back for visits she would share with him.
The cardboard box full of rejects she stashed in the garage; she would sort through it later for serviceable clothes that could go to the Goodwill and take the rest to the dump. The contents of the suitcase went back, neatly folded, into cupboards and drawers to await departure day. The suitcase itself she put under the stairs.
What next? Megan thought, consulting her mental list. She’d already asked Mrs. Jarvis, who came in on Mondays to help with the laundry and the cleaning, to come on Thursdays as well, starting in two weeks’ time. She’d made sure the house was stocked up with all the staples—tins of food, toilet paper, laundry soap. She would change all the sheets and do the laundry the Monday before she left.
That’s it, she thought. All that remained was to tell her family and Patrick that finally—finally—after years of thwarted attempts, she was leaving home.
She started with her mother because that would be the hardest. The second hardest was going to be Patrick, but she wouldn’t be seeing him until Saturday.
“Leaving?” her mother said, looking incredulous. You’d have thought no one had ever left home before, despite the fact that Tom had been gone for over two years. But of course, Megan thought grimly, Tom was a boy. No one batted an eye when a boy left home. If anything it was cause for celebration.
“I’m twenty-one, Mum.” She dusted the kitchen counter with flour and began kneading a lump of pastry the size and heft of a cannonball. It was late afternoon and they were alone in the kitchen, preparing supper. “It’s time I left.”
“Why does being twenty-one mean it’s time you left?”
Her mother was peeling potatoes, but she stopped, her arms in the sink, to stare at Megan.
Megan sliced the cannonball in half, briefly kneaded both halves, set one aside and began rolling out the other with brisk sweeps of the rolling pin. A small crease had appeared between her eyebrows. She’d known it would be like this. It’s your own fault, she thought. You should have gone years ago.
“I told you I was going to go, Mum. When you were pregnant with Adam I said I’d wait until he’d arrived and settled in and then I’d be off. Remember?” She scanned her mother’s face for any sign that she recalled the conversation. Not a trace. Lately Megan had started to wonder if her mother was going senile, but surely she couldn’t be—she was only forty-five. More likely she’d simply erased it from her mind. She’d always been good at not hearing things she didn’t want to hear; maybe forgetting was an extension of the same thing.
“That was a year and a half ago,” Megan said, flipping the pastry over and rolling it out again. “I had to put it off because after Adam was born you weren’t well. And then Adam got whooping cough, so I put it off again. Then Peter and Corey got flu. Then you got flu . . .”
Her mother’s eyes had an unfocused, inward look as if she were searching through dusty files down in the basement of her brain.
“Now everybody is fine,” Megan said firmly. “Tom’s gone and the twins will be off soon and Adam’s a very easy baby.”
She could have added that she also happened to know that he would be the last baby, because in the aftermath of Adam’s birth she’d overheard Dr. Christopherson telling her father so. She’d been coming downstairs with a pile of dirty laundry and heard the doctor, who was in the living room with her father, say, “This must be the last child, Edward.”
Megan had paused on the stairs with her armful of dirty sheets. Her father mumbled something she couldn’t catch, his voice strangled by embarrassment. The doctor said, “That may be so, Edward. It may be her wish. But you have a say in the matter too, and for the sake of your other children—for all your sakes—it must stop now. She is worn out.”
At last! Megan thought. At last! The way her parents kept on having children was just plain ridiculous, in her opinion. It wasn’t as if they were Catholics.
Now she looked at her mother to check that she was listening. “So now’s the perfect time for me to go,” she said. “It’s time I started my own life.”
She’d rehearsed that last line, but inside her head it hadn’t sounded so corny. Her mother looked aggrieved.
“Megan, what nonsense! ‘Starting your own life!’ As if you didn’t have a life here!” Suddenly she turned to fully face her daughter, the paring knife in one hand and a half-peeled potato in the other. Water trickled down her arms to her elbows and onto the floor. “Don’t tell me you’re marrying Patrick McArthur,” she said. She looked appalled.
“MacDonald,” Megan said. “No, Mother” (she called her mother “Mother” when she was annoyed with her), “I am not marrying Patrick MacDonald. I’m not marrying anybody. I’m going to Toronto. You’re dripping all over the floor.”
The kitchen door opened and Peter, age ten, prowled in, eyes scanning left and right, searching for something edible, anything at all.
“Out,” Megan said, pointing a floured finger at the door.
Peter clutched his belly and made an anguished face.
“Out!” Megan said, louder, and he left.
“Mrs. Jarvis will be coming in on Thursdays as well as Mondays to help with the cleaning,” she continued, “and I’ll do a big shopping before I go.”
“But you haven’t told me why you’re going! That’s what I don’t understand.” There was a tremor in her mother’s voice.
Megan hardened her heart. I don’t care, she thought. I do not, will not, care. I’m going. And anyway, it will be good for her. She needs to take charge again. She’s been depending on me too much.
“I’m not leaving for another two weeks,” she said, striving for the right mix of firmness and reassurance. “And I’ll come back and visit. I’m only going to Toronto, remember.” Initially, at any rate, she added to herself.
“I don’t understand you, Megan,” her mother said. “All these years, and now suddenly out of nowhere you say you’re leaving. Truly, honestly, I do not understand you.”
“I know you don’t,” Megan said, her tone more gentle now that it was over. “You never have.” She thought how pretty her mother was still—even now, when she was upset. Her face was as round and smooth as a child’s.
Her father was next. He would be easier, Megan thought, if only because he wouldn’t care so much. Nonetheless, an audience with her father always made her anxious. Whenever you knocked on the door of his study he gave the impression that you were interrupting him in the middle of something critically important.
“Leaving?” he said, gazing at her from behind his desk. Abutting the desk at one end there was a long table heaped with books and at the other end there was a small bookcase, so that he was surrounded on three sides. Like a fortress, Megan thought. A fortress of books. Protecting him from us.
“Leaving home? Or leaving Struan altogether?”
“Both,” Megan said. “I’m going to Toronto to start with. And then when I’ve saved up enough money I’d like to go to England.”
“England?” He looked startled, which Megan found gratifying. “Why England?”
“I have a friend there. Cora Manning. You remember Mr. Manning, the pharmacist? They moved to England a few years ago. Cora works in London now. She shares a house with friends. I could stay with her; she’s invited me. And I’d like to see England.”
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